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workers build cottages for homeless people

Washington congregation creates permanent village for homeless

At Olympia's Camp Quixote, 30 one-room cottages are near completion.
By Donald E. Skinner
11.11.13

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In a world where homeless people are often treated as pariahs, the folks at Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation (OUUC) in Washington State have taken a different approach. They have led the way in building the homeless their own village, complete with tiny houses and a community center.

Their story starts in 2007 when the city of Olympia was about to roust a group of homeless people from their tent city on city property. The OUUC governing board decided on the spur of the moment to host the homeless on church property.

Since then the tent city, called Camp Quixote II (the original site was Camp Quixote), has moved among several congregations of different faiths, staying for three months at a time. That was a workable solution, but almost from the beginning some members of the camp—and some homeless advocates—expressed a longing for a permanent home. Advocates formed a nonprofit called Panza, in honor of Don Quixote's sidekick, to support the camp. It included representatives from OUUC and other congregations, as well as the homeless community.

Panza went to work on a more permanent solution. A year ago it approached the city and won permission to create a permanent community for the homeless on an industrial site. This summer 30 tiny one-room "cottages," which will have electricity and heat, but no running water, began going up, along with a community center which will have bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities, a kitchen, and meeting rooms. By Christmas, if everything goes off on schedule, all of the homeless in Camp Quixote II will have permanently folded their tents and moved in to what is being called Quixote Village.

"We're in the last two months," said Tim Ransom, an OUUC and Panza member who has been involved with the project from the beginning and who is shepherding its completion. "Half of the cottages are framed. We're working on the interior of the community center. We're happy to be this far along."

He said the tenants will comprise a range of people: "Some may stay for a long time. Others will pass through and eventually find transitional housing and then permanent housing of their own. All of these folks are among the chronically homeless. They have a high incidence of mental illness and addictions." Ransom estimated that of the 30 residents, about half will move out within a year's time and others will take their place. The occupants will have a residents' council to govern the village. No drugs will be permitted. Alcohol will be restricted to the cottages. Background checks will be performed on all applicants.

The construction of the village is being supported by grants from a range of entities. Washington State contributed $1.5 million for the project. The county sponsored a federal Community Development Block Grant application for $604,000. Two Native American tribes and other private donors have contributed more than $150,000.

Ransom said OUUC contributes several thousand dollars annually to the village. "Over time Camp Quixote has become one of our social justice ministries," he said.

The residents already have the services of a half-time resident advocate from Catholic Community Services who helps them set goals and gain access to medical, mental health, employment, disability, and housing services. The village will also have a full-time program manager. There are plans for a vegetable garden and fruit trees and to start one or more micro-enterprises that could bring in income to support the village and its residents.

Ransom said the most challenging part of the project initially was convincing governmental jurisdictions to allow local congregations to host the homeless camp on their properties. "Currently our biggest effort is fundraising—figuring out how to sustain this for the future." Contributions may be made via the Quixote Village website.

Homeless advocates have had to work to change attitudes throughout the process, Ransom said. "There's been a not-in-my-backyard response all the way along. We had a significant reaction from adjacent landowners. It's been a long struggle to get to this point just by convincing one set of players at a time."

He added that the project was successful in overcoming attitudes, in part, "because the right people were in the right place at the right time. We have had some incredibly smart and dedicated people leading the fight, including some elected officials and staff. But the pressure of a growing and increasingly visible homeless population here has definitely also played a part. Olympia, and to some degree Thurston County, have shown themselves to be ready to provide services and opportunities to turn things around for this population."

This is not the congregation's only homeless project. In the 90s it began, and still supports, Out of the Woods, a transitional housing program in a house next to the church. Out of the Woods hosts one or two families with children for up to three months, giving them time to save up money to move into a home of their own.

Ransom said around 20 people from OUUC are currently involved with the Quixote Village project, but since 2007 probably 200 have contributed in some way. "Our theme is it takes a village to build the Village," he said.

He added, "Anyone who has had anything to do with the process, and in particular folks who have worked as hosts and other volunteers through the years, have been blown away by learning what the world of homelessness is all about. It's been eye-opening for all of us to understand their issues."


Photograph (above): Thirty cottages for homeless people in Olympia, Wash., are expected to be complete by Christmastime (Tim Ransom). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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